Iowa entered into a compact this year with neighboring states to develop long-range plans for expanded passenger rail service in the Midwest.  State Representative Paul Bell of Newton serves on the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact and the Iowa delegatation held their first meeting on Thursday at the Statehouse. 

The story from today’s Quad City Times:

Iowa ready to consider passenger rail service through state
By Dan Gearino | Thursday, November 08, 2007 | No comments posted

DES MOINES — Iowa leaders said Thursday they are ready to explore new passenger rail options, including the possibility of a route from the Quad-Cities to Omaha.

The big question is how much the federal government might be willing to contribute to efforts in Iowa and across the Midwest.

Even without a big federal investment, Iowa may still invest in a low-speed passenger train that connects the Quad-Cities to Chicago. Later extensions of the route may include Iowa City, Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Omaha.

“The states are now trying to move forward on their own,” said Laura Kliewer, director of the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission, a nine-state coalition that includes Iowa.

She spoke at the Iowa Statehouse with representatives from the Legislature, the governor’s office and other state officials.

Iowa joined the coalition with legislation passed this year. The other member states are Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio.

Amtrak, the federally run passenger train service, now operates two routes in Iowa, the California Zephyr, which runs across the southern part of the state, and the Southwest Chief, which has one stop in the southeastern part of the state. Iowa ridership was 61,377 in 2006, which was roughly the same as the year before.

Supporters of passenger rail think there is an untapped market in Iowa because the trains don’t stop in any major population centers.

The next expansion in Iowa will likely be a connection between Dubuque and Chicago, with most of the cost picked up by Illinois.

There is no cost estimate available about a Quad-Cities to Omaha route. Amtrak may release numbers for certain sections of the route over the next few months.

Using existing infrastructure and reconditioned equipment, some parts of an Iowa route could be built with little cost to the state.

Neil Volmer of the Iowa Department of Transportation said this is a way to get a “foot in the door” and get Iowans thinking about rail travel.

The down side of this approach is that trains could run at about only 45 mph unless the tracks are upgraded. Also, the departure times would be in the middle of the night or early in the morning, so the same trains could make scheduled stops in Illinois.

Thomas Hart, the new transportation manager for the Iowa Department of Economic Development and former head of the Quad-City Development Group, said he doesn’t like the idea of beginning with such a slow train.

“If you have long segments that are 45 mph, it’s junk service,” he said.

But Kliewer, the director of the Midwest coalition, said Hart would be surprised to see how many people would take advantage of the service, even at slow speeds.

She said the development of the route would be a way to demonstrate the states’ interest and show the need for greater federal support.

Dan Gearino can be contacted at (515) 243-0138 and dan.gearino@lee.net.